MASON CITY, Iowa - President Bush and Sen. John Kerry both visited Iowa on Wednesday, with Kerry questioning whether Bush is the exemplary leader he claims to be and Bush saying Kerry's views on national security are so misguided that the Democrat would be unable to defeat terrorism.
Iowa has seven crucial electoral votes and polls have shown the candidates neck-in-neck in that state. Bush will also campaign in Minnesota and Wisconsin today, while Kerry will travel to Pennsylvania and Ohio.
"The next commander in chief must lead us to victory in this war and you cannot win a war when you don't believe you're fighting one," Bush told hundreds of supporters in a northern Iowa farming community.
"My opponent also misunderstands our battle against insurgents and terrorists in Iraq, calling Iraq 'a diversion from the war on terror,'" Bush added.
Bush criticized a recent comment by Kerry that the events of Sept. 11 hadn't changed him much and a comment by Kerry's top foreign policy adviser that the nation is not in a war on terror in a literal sense.
The Kerry campaign said Bush had taken the comments out of context, that Kerry had said Sept. 11 had angered him and that Kerry foreign policy adviser Richard Holbrooke had said the United States must deal with terrorism in aggressive and creative ways because the nation was fighting a nontraditional war.
"I will lead and I believe others will follow," Kerry said. "The president says he's a leader. Well, Mr. President, look behind you. There's hardly anyone there. It's not leadership if we haven't built the strongest alliance possible and if America is going almost alone."
Kerry's speech comes on the heels of blistering statements from the president early this week in which the Republican incumbent said the Massachusetts senator stands for "protest and defeatism" in Iraq and that Kerry would lead the nation toward "a major defeat in the war on terror."
Kerry said the statements show an administration running from its record.
"He wants to make it solely a contest on national security. Well, I welcome that debate," Kerry said. "I believe a president must be able to defend this country and fight for the middle class at the same time."
Former President Clinton will appear with Kerry at a lunchtime rally in Philadelphia on Monday in what Democrats hope will be a boost to the presidential ticket in a crucial battleground state.
The two-term former president also will campaign separately for the Democratic presidential nominee, Joe Lockhart, an adviser to Kerry and former Clinton press secretary, said Wednesday.
Clinton, who is recovering from heart surgery, has agreed to the appearance for his fellow Democrat, who is locked in a tight race against President Bush.
Bush and Kerry vied for the senior vote Tuesday, swapping charges over Social Security and a looming shortage of flu vaccine two weeks before Election Day.
Political momentum, often cited, rarely sighted, was the buzzword inside both campaigns. Aides to Bush claimed he had it following the three presidential debates. But Kerry's team insisted that the battleground states were coming their man's way, and with them, the White House.
Whatever the truth, nationwide polls pointed toward a close finish, with two weeks of campaigning to go. Ditto recent surveys taken in Ohio and Florida, arguably the most hotly contested of the 50 states.